Director: Jan Troell
2008 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
“We are the last dinosaurs of Swedish film,” complained Ingmar Bergman to Jan Troell in 1983. It is strange to see Bergman so down on his lot in the Swedish filmmaking industry, since the director was one of the most recognized and lauded ever in world cinema. His penultimate work, a TV movie called Saraband, was eagerly awaited by cinephiles all over the world, and when he died in 2007, the tributes poured in by the hundreds. Bergman never doubted that Troell was his equal, yet Troell hasn’t gained that same level of respect from the cinematic world. When Everlasting Moments, his first full-length feature film in seven years, came out, the Toronto International Film Festival didn’t even schedule it; it was shown there only as a last-minute replacement for another film. That never would have happened to Bergman.
It’s hard for me to comprehend why Troell doesn’t seem to have the reach and appeal of Bergman. When I saw The Emigrants (1971) his towering epic of the Swedish émigré experience in America when it, too, arrived in America three years after its initial release, I knew I was seeing greatness. But very few of his works ever followed it to these shores. It wasn’t until the very first Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival in 1999 that I got a chance to see another film by Troell, a fascinating look at the strange marriage of Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun and his wife Marie in Hamsun (1996).
Ghita Nørby played the frustrated Marie in that film, and she plays Miss Fagerdal, a rich wig maker whose home the central character in Everlasting Moments, Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen), used to clean. The Finnish-born actress plays the Finnish-born wife of Sigfrid “Sigge” Larsson (Mikael Persbrandt) and mother of his seven children. The story, derived from Agneta Ulfsäter Troell’s book of her family history, is told as a memory play by this couple’s eldest daughter Maja (played as young woman by Callin Öhrvall). There is an I Remember Mama quality to this turn of the 20th century saga spanning 40 years, but Sigge is no kindly Lars Hanson, and Maria Larsson’s biggest problem isn’t having her daughter reject a family heirloom for her graduation present but rather keeping Sigge from slitting her throat with a straight razor.
The legend of Sigge and Maria’s betrothal centers on a raffle in which they won a camera. Sigge said he should get the camera since he bought the ticket, but Maria said she was part of the idea. Maria said she’d let Sigge keep the camera, but he would have to marry her so that she could have it, too. He did. When we enter the story proper, Sigge is waiting along with other men for day work at the docks. Few men are chosen, but because he is strong as a horse, Sigge usually gets picked. Once the children start to arrive, Maria quits service with Miss Fagerdal. She takes in sewing to add to the family’s meager coffers.
Maja is a good student who loves school and wishes to be a writer. One day, her teacher honors her with a visit to her home. In the middle of the visit, a very drunk Sigge is delivered to his door by two friends. Maja is humiliated, Maria is furious, and all of them pay a visit later on to the local temperance club where Sigge takes the pledge yet again. When they return home, the handsome and charming Sigge invites his wife to love; she only relents when he promises never to drink again, and they conceive Elon, child number 6. Sigge tries to keep his word, but The Captain (Antti Reini), a man who works with Sigge on the docks, likes his drinking partner.
Influenced by his best friend, Englund (Emil Jensen), Sigge becomes a socialist and joins the dock workers union. When the union calls a strike, Sigge has plenty of idle time to spend in the union hall. He walks a vivacious young barmaid named Mathilda (Amanda Ooms) home one day and begins an affair with her.
With Sigge out of work, Maria tries to pawn the camera they won years ago to help pay the bills. Entering the photography shop of Sebastian Pedersen (Jesper Christiansen), Maria hears him behind a curtain playing a violin while accompanied by the howls of his dog Leo. He comes to the front, examines the camera, and says it’s a very fine one, a Contessa. It still has an unexposed photographic plate in it. Maria confesses the camera has never been used; she doesn’t understand how it could possibly make images. Pedersen shows her how the process works by removing the lens, holding it up to a window where a butterfly is fluttering, and casting its shadow through the lens onto Maria’s open hand. He closes her hand, showing that she can capture images through the camera lens. Maria is enchanted. Pedersen teaches her how to use the camera, and she takes it home and snaps a picture of her children. When she brings it to Pedersen to be developed, he is impressed with her eye. He sets her up with supplies, and says he will let her use the camera until he decides what to offer her for it.
Sigge changes jobs when a hauler finds out how good he is with horses and hires him. Finances are still tight, and domestic relations in the Larsson house remain tense as Sigge continues to drink and abuse Maria and the children. Maria, however, finds her photographic skills more and more in demand and her friendship with Pedersen a source of comfort. When Sigge suspects Maria is cuckolding him with Pederson, he flies into a rage, and that’s when the razor blade comes out. A defiant Maria dares him to use it, “just remember the children.” He lets go, but this is no simple domestic disturbance. He is thrown in jail for attempted murder, and we wonder if Maria might finally have a chance to break free of him now and find some real happiness.
Everlasting Memories has an old-fashioned feel to it, and not just because it is set in the past. The film tells its story in a straightforward, conventional manner, including a voiceover style that harkens from another time. The look and feel of the film are like an overstuffed, high-back chair—full, handsomely hued in rich, deep tones that grow soft at the edges. The subject matter—a troubled marriage, family, and emigration as exemplified by Maja’s expatriate aunt—is pure Troell. Perhaps his reaffirmation of his style confirms Bergman’s assessment of him as one of Sweden’s dinosaurs of film. Yet, Troell really knows how to dig into the heart of characters and families, expressing their longings without revealing all their secrets. He makes ordinary people in dreary circumstances intriguing and compelling.
Maria acts as our eyes onto the beauty of the world that can be found everywhere people normally find misery. A grieving mother asks Maria to photograph her dead daughter as a keepsake; Maria composes a picture of the young girl in repose that astounds the mother: “She never looked more beautiful.” A neighbor woman talks about her Down Syndrome child as one she’d have aborted had she known. Maria asks to photograph the child, bringing a luminous smile to her neighbor at the honor. Somehow, her appreciation for the good in all things extends even to her husband. “Maybe it was love,” a grown Maja tells us. It certainly is love that fills this film and reaffirms Jan Troell as a filmmaker who affirms life without sugar-coating it. I highly recommend this return of a true master.